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Getting "uppity"

Yesterday, writing about “politically correct” language, I referred to the use of uppity in describing the Obamas as a racist code word. There are, of course, people, particularly defenders of Rush Limbaugh, who turn to the dictionary and say that no, the word means taking airs above one’s station and can be completely innocent of any racist tinge. (Indeed, since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been freely applied to women.)

For them, and others who may have had a sheltered upbringing, here’s a little context.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which indeed has non-racist citations, also includes this specimen:

“1952 F. L. ALLEN Big Change II. viii. 130 The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about ‘uppity [you know which epithet I’ve deleted]’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow.”

Those who think that there is a racist connotation to uppity, but that it has faded away in our enlightened age, some examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

PBS NewsHour, 1996: BARI-ELLEN-ROBERTS: I was called uppity. I was called a smart-mouthed little colored girl.

Basquiat, 1996: You get a girlfriend and a little attention and then start acting all uppity with me. # BASQUIAT # (mortified)' Uppity?' Like as in' uppity [expletive deleted again]?'

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1996: Calloway's view: " They got that plantation syndrome (in Belle Glade). Here is the master, Doug Wedgworth:' Yes'm, boss.' See, I'm an uppity black boy (to them).

Gloria Naylor, Essence, 1995: in the 1950's, uppity little colored girls were as unwelcome in their own culture and in the larger society as their sisters are today.

Houston Chronicle, 1995: " While we could compete against the white cowboys, we had to ride after they were done at the end of the show, " he said. # Plus, the black cowboy had to mount the bull from the back to avoid being seen by the fans and appearing too " " uppity, " he said.

Letter to editor San Francisco Chronicle, 1994 about Willie Brown: worse, he is uppity, and the combination of black, smart and uppity is not forgivable to your average Republican

CBS, 1994: MITCHELL: How did white cadets look at Johnson Whittaker? Mr-MARSZALEK: Oh, the -- the -- the -- they thought he had absolutely no business being there. MITCHELL: Uppity? Mr-MARSZALEK: Uppity. Exactly. It's an example of someone who does not know his place.

Homeland, 1993: He hated the idea that the nigras were free, he hated what he called their uppity pertinacious ways.

Essence, 1993: The racial factor of the " uppity Black " enters in.

Washington Monthly, 1993: Congress became " The Liberal Plantation, " where massuhs Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden lash uppity black conservatives.

And, perhaps most notably, you may recall this passage from Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing:

"And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you."

If you still think that uppity carries no racial charge, perhaps you could ask Mr. Justice Thomas what he thinks.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:53 PM | | Comments (27)


So what do Mr. Limbaugh and his friends think Rep. Westmoreland meant by calling then Senator Obama "uppity"? A senator wanting to be president is putting on airs? Really?

I am also thrilled to learn that all those kids who called me gay in grade school were only commenting on my sunny disposition.

Through these somewhat jaundiced eyes, I view the long-standing hateful mindset of most conservative American White racists amongst us (and you know who you are), as historically being an intransigent one of regarding most African-Americans (and Chicanos) as somehow intrinsically inferior to the superior White majority; and further, that these clearly lesser beings (in the racists' view) therefore belong in their rightfully predestined place, i.e., on the very lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

In the typical racist's warped world view, any African-American, or Chicano who has the temerity to aspire to making something of their station in life, to advance themselves thru hard work, native intelligence, and determination as say a white-collar professional, a lawyer, a doctor, a professor, a politician, a journalist, a self-made entrepreneur, or the like, is summarily regarded as "uppity' by merely seeing themselves excelling and prospering on the middle, and upper tiers of the established order.

"Why, the very nerve of THOSE people!" (Read those "uppity", social-climbing Blacks and Hispanics.)

Implicit in the use of the denigrating word "uppity" by the covert, or overt racist is the negation of any attempt by the man-of-color to rise above their assumed
lowly status in the greater society's pecking order. For the outright racist, to even entertain the notion that any Black man, or Chicano deserves to share a place at the upper-middle/ upper class table of prosperity and plenty w/ the White man is anathema. (Sorry for trying to make the same point several times, by merely rephrasing it.)

Even though I've never considered myself a great fan of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and am still slightly troubled by the sleazy tenor of his contentious Senate confirmation hearings (pubic hair on a Coke can, indeed), I nonetheless believe there is a kernel of truth in what he was saying re/ "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks".

Frankly, I just wish that he would be more pro-active, participatory, and inquisitive over these many years he's held his exalted position on 'The Court'.

Far from "uppity", rather Justice Clarence Thomas has chosen to be almost mute in his silence, asking his last question, in full session, back in February of 2006. Very strange, indeed.

Of course long before Mr. Thomas join the U.S. Supreme Court, the much-revered Baltimore native-son, Thurgood Marshall, was confirmed as the first Black Supreme Court Justice, where he went on to serve w/ great distinction for some twenty-four years.

I'm fairly convinced that a large constituency of Southern conservative Whites at the time of Marshall's nomination viewed this civil rights pioneer, and fine social-activist attorney as just another "uppity" N********. And moreover, vilified then- President Lyndon B. Johnson who picked Marshall for the vacated Supreme Court seat, regarding LBJ w/ disdain-----one of those damn "negro lovers".

Have times really changed that radically for the better in today's PC-riven, touchy multi-racial American landscape?

Clearly most White folk are perfectly fine w/ the Black man as super-star athlete, or beloved millionaire performer, where as a race they've managed to excel throughout the modern era. Sadly, for decades these two avenues of potential fame-and-fortune appeared to be the idealized aspirational destinations for many Black youth who saw these enterprises as the only ticket out of the hard-scrabble, violence-and drugs-ridden, inner city ghetto life.

Thankfully, today that myopic, and unrealistic vision of sports and entertainment as the sole option(s) for personal success is less compelling, as so many accomplished African-Americans, from NASA astronauts, to Secretaries of State, to major educators, and beyond, have set countless positive workplace examples for the up-and-coming generations of Black kids.

IMHO, this whole "uppity" issue comes down to a minority of scared White folk desperately trying to hang on to the old status quo, almost harking back to the narrow-mindedness of the Jim Crow, pre-Civil Rights era in America in their deep-seated prejudices. Perhaps even reaching even further back in time to the seeds of hate planted in the early slavery era, well before the Civil War.

Old inter-generational hates die hard. Racism will likely persist as long as the fear, and loathing of THE OTHER is allowed to fester, while most in our greater society continue to turn a blind eye, and a deaf ear.

We CAN do better!


I've never heard the adjective used without the racial slur. I've never heard it used about any other ethnic minority, such as Jews, Italians or Hispanics. It may be used occasionally in other contexts in a jocular way, but I've never seen an example. It is a code word, but a code that's easy to crack.

In the earlier post, Patricia the Terse contributed this observation (I suspect she was being facetious):

I don't know why the word "uppity" has been expunged from American speech, but I can tell you that the current First Lady is sinning above her station. And with false eyelashes, too.

This makes me ask what station might be above the station of "First Lady"? That is, after all, a rather high social position in itself. The word "uppity" after all, even in non-racist contexts, always presumes the existence of "stations" for which certain behavior is appropriate and commended while other behavior is condemned. To use a standard example, while a janitor may be uppity when he addresses the CEO by his first name, the CEO would never be considered uppity if he addresses the janitor by his first name (though some may think him patronizing or disrespectful). While "uppity" continues to have racist overtones, the classist connotations are inherent to the word. These latter are, in my view, enough to wish the word expunged from American speech.

I am not a "folk."

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, in the 1960s. I heard "uppity" as a child, applied only to blacks. I also remember hearing a synonymous word, "biggity," which ironically enough was pronounced just as one might pronounce "bigot-y."

Marc Leavitt,

I grant you that the adjective "uppity" used as a racial slur seems to be almost the exclusive reserve of African-Americans as the intended target of such snarky animus.

I can't say I've personally heard it directly used against Hispanics, or Jews (as you noted earlier, Marc)----- those ofttimes historically marginalized folk who, nonetheless, like their fellow Blacks might be trying to improve their lot in life, while perceived as somehow threatening the former hegemony of establishment whites.

I suspect my having brought the Chicano/ Hispanic 'factor' into the discussion re/ use of the term "uppity", (having lived for the past three decades in Los Angeles and observed, firsthand, the trials and tribulations of our now-majority Spanish-speaking population --------largely Mexican immigrants, but also Central and South American residents), was likely my perception that many hateful, xenophobic white Angelenos appear to view our Latino 'high-achievers' striving to emerge from the under-class as a threat to their once more dominant influence, and social standing in the City of Angels.

Perhaps the xenophobes choice words of scorn, and invective even eclipse the inherent sting of the adjective "uppity", carrying even greater demeaning, and ugly intended malice.

Let's not lose sight of the historical fact that this now bustling megalopolis of L.A. humbly began its cityhood, if you will, back in 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles. The district of downtown Olvera Street was the first permanent settlement in the area, long before California was ever a State of the Union, essentially a northern outpost of greater Mexico.

What an interesting historical symmetry---- an almost full-circle twist of fate---- what we are witnessing here today in L.A., as we rapidly move into the second decade of this new century. Spanish-speaking Angelenos have now become the dominant linguistic demographic, percentage-wise, and we Anglos are finally waking up to the reality that this city is no longer the exclusive bastion of lily-white conformity, and old-school city politics-as-usual.

If anyone wants to call my adopted proud Hispanic Angeleno brothers and sisters "uppity', perhaps in their case it takes on a whole new, even positive connotation. Hmm......... 'uppity Hispanics'.......... maybe it's about time?

Viva los peublo!


I seem to recall seeing the occasional bumper sticker that said "Uppity Women Unite!" Anyone know where that originated?


Just guessing, but that "Uppity Women Unite" bumper sticker sounds like it could have been a slogan-like rallying cry promulgated by some diehard feminist organization, who has cleverly co-opted what most would regard as a debasing/ put-down label, i.e., "uppity", embraced it, turning its intended negativity on its head, as it were, making it a declarative, gender-affirming, positive appellation; underscoring that male-dominated Western society cannot keep a good, determined, proactive woman down, or make her feel less-than. That any job a man can do well, a woman can do equally as well, (or heaven forbid), better.

The slogan "Uppity Women Unite" could have come from the mouth, (or mind) of either a Gloria Steinem, a Betty Friedan, a Bella Abzug, a Camille Paglia, or a Naomi Wolf.

I would argue that in this context, "uppity" would represent a kind of collective badge of courage-----the notion of women breaking thru that proverbial workplace glass ceiling, and confronting societal double standards related to gender bias.

The adjective "uppity", rather than reflecting its more familiar discounting air, as implied when used in its historically racially-charged manner by hostile white folk toward African-American alleged upstarts, may have been appropriated by feminists who have muted its original negative sting, and transformed it into an in-your-face, positive, affirming notion. In other words, "uppity" ain't all that bad in the proper context.

At least that's my take, for what it's worth.


"Lily-white." Hmmmmmmmm.

My late husband used to apply the term "uppity" to computer software that didn't know its place -- as personified in Clippy, but more generally for thinking it knew what you wanted better than you did.

But as to the specific issue you raise: It seems that your undeniably racialized examples are nearly all given by black writers explaining what they assume white people are thinking about them (Justice Thomas among them). No doubt they are sometimes correct, but in many of those examples they very probably are not. They attribute the use of the term to hypothetical white people.

I suspect that black people are better attuned to the overtones of racism than white people, just as people who are condescended to are more aware of condescension than those who condescend.

I had a great-aunt, a good Kennedy liberal New Republic subscriber who endorsed the civil rights movement and all that, but when you heard her talk about actual black people and--key word here--the things they weren't "ready" for, certain overtones were evident. And if *I* could hear them ...

It's rather like walking into a room of people with bare feet and then being blamed for stepping on someone's toes. The world has more important problems than this. And I'm still not a "folk."

Patricia, Patricia, Patricia,

I see you're still partial to what I've coined as the 'hit-and-run stinger post response'--- a short, generally snide remark posted to counter some earlier comment(s) that has (have) drawn one's ire, or touched a particularly sensitive emotional nerve...... your last post being a prime example, i.e., " 'Lily-white'. Hmmmmmmmm."

Not to mention your earlier self-righteous sounding, "I'm not a 'folk'." (I guess I just DID mention it,)

Patricia, clearly, being a proud, upstanding, white American, (perhaps not lily-white), and as an apparent media savvy person, you are likely well aware that many prominent African-American political pundits, and established academics , including NPR's astute Tavis Smiley*, are wont to use the term "folk", sans the "s", in their regular discourse. (I would imagine a Southern U.S.-rooted appellation?). From your earlier terse rejoinder, it's obvious you wouldn't want to be painted w/ the same brush as these fine (Black) folk(s).

Do I read you correctly, or are my observations just the ramblings of some expat-caucasian Canadian liberal, and I'm being far too racially sensitive for my own good, here?

Respectfully, in future it would be nice if you could just come right out and tell me I'm completely wrong, misguided, or sounding too condescending-----or basically, that I'm full-of-it-----and then perhaps offer a cogent, sincere argument in defense of your particular counter-points, or contrary position re/ your issue of concern. Civil debate, if you will.

I'd much prefer an open, full-disclosure approach rather than little short broadside snipes that leave most of our blogging audience kind of guessing at where you are coming from, and having to often fish around to discover whose particular posting you are actually referring to.

Would that be far too much to ask?

*I believe Tavis Smiley was born in Mississippi, but moved up to Indiana w/ his family, as a youngster. He still has a strong empathy. identification, and affection for the deep South, and as he might put it, "those just plain, common, hardworkin', salt-of-the-earth Southern folk."


P.S.:-----Oh, and what's up w/ your continued sniping at our First Lady, Michele Obama-- from her "sinning" in the White House, lack of proper official 'etiquette', to her alleged lousy taste in clothes? Care to amplify? Inquiring minds might like to know.

The world has more important problems than keeping track of whether Patricia is a folk.

Most uses of "uppity" are a bit offensive to me because of the idea that people have stations in life that they must not get above. If you say a person's action is annoying or offensive or distracting or inappropriate for the time and place, while I may disagree, I probably wouldn't consider the statement offensive. But calling someone uppity is saying he isn't good enough to say or do a particular thing. In most of the cases where "uppity" would be used, that's an offensive statement.

Brian, Brian, Brian,

Hate to come off as far too "uppity" in this PC, don't-make-waves world of ours, but would you care to amplify on your keeping track of, or being concerned about the world's sundry "problems", rather than merely parroting our clearly ticked-off Patricia's sentiments re/ the use of the word "folk', almost word-for-word, no less?

No disrespect intended, but 'folk' of your slightly peevish ilk tend to mildly irritate me. No skin off your noses, I'm sure.

But alas, I'll accept your share suggestion to stifle myself on this site re/ the word "folk', in the spirit it was delivered, and press the matter no further.

As one of my 'toon' heros might chortle, while exiting stage-left, "Tha.....tha.....that's all folks!" (Can you believe it, I actually wrote "folks". Mercy.)


Re: Uppity Women Unite!
There are several books whose titles begin "Uppity Women of..." The books cover ancient times, medieval times, and the Renaissance, among other times. I've read several of them and enjoyed the tales of women who didn't behave quite they way their society seemed to deem appropriate.

While growing up in rural north Georgia a few decades ago, I did hear "uppity" used in contexts similar to those quoted by Prof. McIntyre. But most of the time I heard it used as a slam against anyone acting snobby.

Alex, don't get offended. That post wasn't about you. I'm sure that ALL of your problems are more important than keeping track of what to call those who are terse.


I appreciate you sincere 'peace offering', of sorts. Not that I'm at war w/ the "terse" amongst us. Truth be told, I rather look forward to, and relish Patricia the Terse's comments on this site. Never dull, or indecisive, and always thought-provoking.

Let's face it, we human beings are living in most challenging times, where we find millions of our fellow Americans barely at, or subsisting well below, the poverty line; many families struggling to stay afloat in a depressed economy w/ 'underwater mortgages', and carrying massive household debt, while frankly many self-indulgent, self-serving Congressmen appear more concerned about getting reelected to high office next year, clinging to their privileged status, rather than creating, and passing critical new bipartisan legislation, and finding ways to encourage more employment opportunities, and job growth for the ready-willing-and-able unemployed American worker.

I count my blessings each and every day, realizing that we ALL have problems , great and small, to deal with, and hopefully overcome, in our daily lives. Mine are no more 'problematic', or important than the next guy's, or gal's . Everyone is impacted by these tough economic times. Even that richest 1% of Americans have their down, and not-so-rosy moments , as well, I suspect.

Thankfully, this great online forum for lively and open discourse, (and many other equally fine sites) can allow us average Joes, on occasion, to vent our spleens, exalt our joys, or just throw out an opinion, or two, while hopefully honoring the original intent of Prof. McI.'s "You Don't Say" blog, which is conversing on, and debating all things lexicographic and grammatical, including matters relating to proper language usage, and such.

I've found our good professor to be a most gracious, and understanding blogmeister who allows us bloggers to sometimes drift off from the core 'mission' of his site (the language/ grammar aspect), while keeping us within the bounds of civility, w/ his wit, tact, and erudition.

Brian, like both you and Patricia, I'm definitely a lover, and hardly a hater.

If we chose to participate in this online enterprise then there is surely room for both the terse and the verbose, as well as all those others in between. At least we are engaging one another, and exchanging ideas and knowledge. And that's a very good thing, in my view.


P.S.: ----- I apologize if I may have come off as too critical, or a bit snarky, earlier. (That was my evil twin speaking. HA!)I

ALex - Brevity is the soul of writ.


"The soul of writ", indeed. (Brevity that is.)

Clearly not a spelling faux pas on your part, but yet another sterling example of your sharply hewn wit/ writ, w/ just a smidgen of a bonus jab thrown in for good measure. (As expected. HA!)

Not that it's here, nor there, but I do have a decided preference for briefs, over long-johns. Too bad it doesn't translate into my writing........... the brevity bit.

The late humorist, accomplished pianist, sometime-actor, and all-round New York City bon vivant, Oscar Levant*, once opined, "A pun is the lowest form of humor--when you don't think of it first."

I believe the original quote re/ the lowly status of punning came from that great, iconic lexicographer himself, Samuel Johnson......... sans the aforementioned witty amplification of Mr. Levant, of course.

The rather dour, and seemingly terminally melancholic, yet hilariously funny Levant also came up w/ the memorable line, "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line."

Patricia, what can I say?

I truly relish a good pun---- to wit, your "writ". Just hold the onions. (Groan)

Have a super weekend, Your Terseness,


* I remember seeing Oscar Levant w/ some frequency, on either the Mike Douglas, or Merv Griffin daytime talk show. Usually he'd tickled-the-ivories for a bit, then proceeded to tickle the funny-bones of either hosts Merv, or Mike. He also appeared, on occasion, w/ Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. A very cerebral, complicated, hypochondriacal guy. A bit of a morbid wit, who would not suffer fools gladly.

Ah! but he loved to suffer.

Mr Justice Thomas, with whom I have no quarrel,does not dictate my use of language. He might, however, have a few suggestons for Miss Hill.


Hmm......... like those sleepy Scots whom we kinda agreed to let lie for a spell, can't we lay off those dozy, stogy, 'ivory toweristic' U.S. Supreme Court justices for a bit, as well? (Pretty please?)

Frankly, re/ your earlier assertion, Your Terseness, I have a feeling no one, period, would be "dictating" to YOU how to use language; let alone Mr. Justice Thomas...... or for that matter, our astute blogmeister McIntyre.

Now the taciturn one's (Justice Thomas's) politically hyperactive, ultra-conservative, right-wing spouse, Virginia (nee Lamp*), may have a few suggestions for Ms. Hill. The word "apology" seems to have just popped into my cranium.

Patricia, as you may recall, several months ago Anita Hill received a flurry of either e-mails, or phone messages from Thomas' wife, (founder of the Tea Party-aligned advocacy group Liberty Central), in effect suggesting Hill's earlier claims of her husband Clarence's alleged workplace sexual improprieties were blatantly false, and essentially asserting that a deserved direct/ formal apology was in order.

Ms. Hill, clearly a woman of strong personal conviction, and steadfast resolve, summarily ignored Mrs. Thomas' plea(s) for any manner of apology, and moreover, held fast to her original Senate nominating committee hearing testimony(under oath), that Thomas had, on several occasions, under his direct employ as an attorney at both the Department of Education and the EEDC, habitually sexually harassed her, and other female employees, thus creating a toxic workplace environment.

Of course, no other women employees testified at the hearings re/ being sexually harassed by Thomas, while curiously several actually spoke in his defense as character witnesses. It really devolved into a classic circumstantial he-said-she-said scenario. As history witnessed, the controversial Clarence Thomas was eventually confirmed as only the second African-American Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anita Hill is currently a professor of social policy, law, and women's studies at Brandeis University's Helller School for Social Policy & Management. She appears to be letting that particular sleeping dog lie, and further more won't be throwing a bone-of-an-apology towards the characteristically mute member of the High Court any time soon, lest he stir from his self-contended torpor, and actually render an opinion, or post a relevant query.

What was that old adage about the wheels of justice running slowly? Just sayin'.

* This is a cheap shot, but the book penned by psychologist/ author Oliver Sachs comes to mind, i.e., "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat"............. in Clarence Thomas' case, clearly a Lamp. (Groan)


Not sure if Justice Thomas is well understood by his use of the word "uppity"
He has turned the racial word game on its head by pointing out the reverse discrimination he has endured by daring to think for himself. But the fact that he has his own conservative views....
has opened him up to much derision and negative judging from those calling him "Uncle Tom"
Funny how what goes around, comes around.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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